Let’s hear it for the nappers. Let’s hear it for the procrastinators, for the layabouts, the buddhas and the snooze button junkies. Let’s hear it for getting stoned mid-morning. For siestas, for Thanksgiving food comas, for sleeping in on Sundays and not going to church, for faked sick days. Let’s hear it for the dreamers; not the day-dreamers, half-cocked on hopeless ambitions and fantasies, but for the people who dream at night and cannot be bothered to quit in the morning. For you are Nature’s perfect creatures at the far, peaceable frontier of a violent kingdom.
The ultimate animal to represent Sloth is the Sloth; in the mammal world, it is simply the paragon of effortless existence. But since I already wrote about the sloth, today I’ll write about Australia’s marsupial sloth analogue, the Koala.
It is an oft-repeated factoid that the koala sleeps for 18-22 hours a day; the average koala is awake for a mere 2 years out of the 12 of its lifetime. Like the sloth, it needs that rest to digest the leaves that make up its diet, leaves being extremely poor in nutrition. While the sloth has at least some variety in its salad, the koala is a specialist on par with the panda: it eats only one type of leaf, that of the eucalyptus, which is highly toxic and completely undigestible by almost any other animal. The lack of competition, the surplus of eucalyptus, and the fact that eucalyptus makes koala flesh taste like a poisonous cough drop has made the koala quite successful. The koala has done well for itself by doing almost nothing.
A little more about koalas. First, you may have wondered how an animal that eats nothing but leaves gets to be so roly-poly. That gut has to be big, to house its ingenious machine. Their large intestine is longer than any other animal’s for its size, with the caecum — sort of like the rumen in a cow, an intestinal pouch for fermentation — enlarged into a “second stomach” to extract every bit of nutrients from its unnutritious fare. They don’t just have guts; they are mostly guts.
Secondly, the bacteria that make those leaves digestible are so essential that they are passed down to koala joeys not just in their milk, but in caecal “pap,” a waste product of that second stomach, which makes up the joey’s first solid meal. Without its inner symbiont, the koala would be lost.
Thirdly, the low-protein diet has rendered the koala dumber than a bag of doorknobs; its brain is like two walnut halves in a cranium the size of a primate’s, each half floating separately like testes in a quart of coconut milk. They don’t just move slower; they think slower. They are the stoners of the animal world, blinking hazily from a cloud of premium leaf.
Fourthly, male koalas have bifurcated penises, and females have two vaginas. This might be astounding, were it not standard for almost all marsupials. Next!
Fifthly: koalas are the only other animal known with fingerprints. In fact, koala fingerprints are so similar to human fingerprints that they are hard for an expert to tell apart. What the detective might notice at the scene of the crime, however, is that whoever murdered the duchess must have been a koala, as the prints around her neck clearly show two opposable thumbs on each hand.
One question I have is why koalas don’t look more like sloths. Why haven’t they evolved to be upside-down, hanging from hooks like a furry shower curtain? The answer, I think, may have something to do with climate. Once, Australia was striped with a wide swath of rainforest, like modern Brazil. But now it’s hotter and drier, and the dominant eucalyptus trees don’t form a thick horizontal canopy like in the South American forest; they grow quickly, reach upwards, and don’t overcrowd each other. Tree architecture may be the key. Australia’s modern eucalyptus forests are young, widely spaced, and vertical, so the koala remains vertical. Only the fruit bats of Australia, with their light bodies and lack of extra baggage, can exploit the “upside-down” niche that makes up half the space of the forest, out in the twigs. Until the trees of Australia grow together, koalas remain buddha-like but not quite as enlightened as the sloth: sedentary and safe, dreaming very stupid little dreams.